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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Iceland Part II: Transportation and Food

The taxi dropped us off at the Cozy Campers headquarters, located in a neighborhood that was a strange mix of industrial and residential. The driver helped us unload our bags and thankfully, as we wheeled them into the office, a worker ran out and handed him what looked like a voucher. He seemed happy with it, so we were released from the worry the poor guy wouldn't get paid.

The office had a nice reception room with plush couches and chairs with a fake fireplace that was glowing with electric flames. Lining one wall was shelving and a small glass-doored refrigerator loaded with jars, cans and bottles of food items, some half empty. A young woman at the counter asked for our names. In case you were wondering, we knew how to pronounce them.

"Ah! Yes, here you are." She pulled up our information in the computer and printed out our paperwork. "Two weeks, returning on September 14?"

We signed everywhere she pointed, promising not to take the van off-road, acknowledging any traffic tickets or driver induced accidents were our problem, and most importantly, that we would be fully responsible for any damage caused by unsafe water crossings. Yes, water crossings. This is a thing in Iceland.

She took us outside and showed us the camper van, our home for the next two weeks. The front was a regular mini-van set up, a bench seat with room for three passengers or in our case, two passengers and all our camera equipment. The back was accessed by a sliding side door. Inside was a bench seat that cleverly converted to a bed at night, with storage underneath for pillows, feather comforters, and a bottom sheet, along with anything else we wanted to stow away. The other wall and back of the camper had a built in counter top/cabinet system where our pots and pans, tea kettle, stove and kitchen utensils/plates/cups/bowls were stored. The large cabinet across the back had plenty of room for food items. There was a small built in sink with a faucet and a small fridge wedged in there too.

The extra seat came in handy when one of our occasionally friends needed a ride.
Most of the time though, it was taken up by our camera equipment.

The interior included a couch with pillows, fridge, and even a handy map on the wall with all the major roads listed (including the roads we were banned from taking)

The back hatch opened up to reveal more storage, the water tank with easy snap connections (so removal for refilling was quick and painless), and the camper battery. The battery ran the faucet, the fridge, the cool LED lighting system that was built in to the cabinetry, and most importantly, the heater. This battery was charged when the van was running, and if it went low only took a few minutes of running the engine to top back up.

There was extra storage in the back, perfect for beer, soda and boxed food.

Water bin and electrical, simple and effective.
It all looked pretty straightforward, so after walking around the vehicle noting any existing dings in the paint, we went back inside to finish off the paperwork. After signing a few more things, and getting handouts explaining road signs that are unique to Iceland, she told us to help ourselves to any food on the shelves or in the fridge.

This was new to us, but turned out to be a common and delightful occurrence throughout our trip. Here and at most of the campgrounds, there was a spot set aside for extra food and stove fuel canisters. People were welcome to help themselves, and those that were finishing up their trip and found they overbought were welcome to leave their extras. I wish this would catch on in the States, what a great idea. Of course you'd run the risk of having people sue because they got sick, or worse, someone would decide to poison something and leave it for a hapless victim. Maybe not such a good idea in the US.

We picked up salt, some spices and condiments, oatmeal, and a packet of little tiny sausages that looked good, then loaded our luggage and free food into the van. We sat in the parking lot for a minute trying to get our bearings.

Mark demonstrates the best feature of a full size hatch door: it doubled as an awning in the rain enabling us to cook outdoors in bad weather.

Before leaving the airport, we stopped by the ATM and got some cash, and we had also purchased a SIM card for our phone. Verizon had a number of options for overseas use, but they had all worked out to be more expensive than the SIM card. We bought one that was good for unlimited data and cell use for 14 days, just enough to cover us until we got to the apartment we would be staying in for the last few days of the trip (WiFi included!). This meant our phone number was changed to an Icelandic one, but it allowed us to have the use of our phone for navigation, texting relatives back home, email, and who are we kidding, the occasional Instagram moment. I typed in "grocery stores" and Google maps came up with a few options nearby, then we were off.

We made a list before we left home, having learned a basic math lesson in Tanzania:

 New Country+No Sleep+Unfamiliar Labels=Hungry Campers

We weren't going to get caught out again! Armed with our handy list, we arrived at a Kronan Grocery store ready for quick and efficient shopping. Piece of cake!

The store looked just like grocery stores here. There were aisles for baked goods, cereals, chips, sodas. Instead of cold cases they had an entire room that was chilled, you entered through separate doors to get to the dairy, eggs and chilled meats. For the most part, there was at least some english on the labels so we could tell what we were buying. We had to guess the jam flavor by inspecting the color, and the juice luckily had the mix of fruits displayed on the label. There were some American brands—especially kids cereal interestingly enough—but most were European.

The produce area looked the same as well, except for the lack of diversity. There were piles of hot house tomatoes, bins of apples, potatoes, and some greens like broccoli and lettuce. There was very little citrus of any kind, and certainly no pineapple or mango or other warm climate type fruit, not surprising given the latitude of Iceland. What was in great abundance though, were zeros. As in lots and lots of extra zeros on the price markers.

(Photo credit: What's On)
Virtually everything in Iceland is imported. They have geothermally heated greenhouses where they grow certain vegetables, and of course sheep and some dairy farms, but everything else comes in by boat or plane. This is costly of course, and it shows up on the price tags. We stood in awe as our yogurt, granola, apples, milk and bread added up on the monitor. Throw in some cheese, a few cokes and some chips and it bumped up much quicker. We walked out with two smallish bags of groceries having paid well over $100. Guess we'll be eating a lot of PBJs on this trip.

(A word about alcohol in Iceland: Beer, wine and liquor are not sold in grocery stores here. There are separate stores, Vinbudin, that are the only ones authorized to sell it. They have limited hours and are not as plentiful as grocery stores; we mostly saw them in the larger towns. If we thought the grocery prices were high, a visit to a Vinbudin put that thought to rest: A six pack of beer was $25.00. Fun Beer Fact: it was illegal to make or buy beer in Iceland until March 1, 1989. That's right, 1989. To this day, March 1st is a National Holiday called, fittingly, Beer Day.)

Out in the parking lot, we loaded our purchases with great care, not wanting to lose even one precious carrot. It was time to take this van to its natural habitat, the campground in Hafnarfjör∂ur where our friends would meet us. On the ride over, we practiced saying the town name; Hahf-nahr-Fyor-thish. 

Or something like that.

(Next up: we take this van on the road and meet Siggi at his lighthouse cafe.)


Saturday, October 5, 2019

Iceland Part I: Touchdown

We landed at the Keflavik airport tired and wired, ready to start this Icelandic adventure but lulled into an irritated malaise after a two hour wait for customs. Three very full flights had arrived within minutes of each other, clogging the tiny airport with a mob of tourists anxiously holding their passports open to the proper page. Two stoic and humorless customs agents were stamping as fast as they could.

Once outside the airport the cold wind slapped us into the realization we were now just below the Arctic Circle. The sun was low and very bright, something our bloodshot eyes weren't ready for since they were still under the impression it was 3am PST. After a little sleepless confusion, we found the Flybus (that had been sitting in front of us all along) and climbed aboard.

We had rented a 4x4 VW van from Cozy Campers for our two week adventure almost a year ago. After an extensive internet search, we decided they offered the vehicle closest to our needs: bedding, stove, cookware and utensils, heater and fridge, all packed in an all-wheel drive van with higher clearance for rough road driving. All this at an exorbitant Icelandic price that was right in line with all the other exorbitant Icelandic van rental places. What set them apart from the others was their offer to transport us from the airport to their shop, and also get us back to Reykjavik once we were finished with our trip. It was nice not to have to worry about arranging transportation after an all-night flight to a foreign country.

Now where is that bus? Oh yeah, we're sitting in it...

The bus trundled down the Reykjanes Peninsula on Highway 41, heading for the Reykjavik BSI (bus terminal). From there we were to catch a Hreyfill Taxi to the Cozy Camper headquarters a few kilometers away. Despite being a major tourist destination, Iceland's international airport is not located in its biggest city. Keflavik is an hour from Reykjavik, and virtually everyone needs to get to Reykjavik to start their vacation. Thus the bus ride with lots of company.

It was a pretty drive in the morning sun, views of small harbors, distant farmhouses and acres and acres of lava scrolled by as we stared out the windows. We were struck by how much this countryside looked like the lava fields of the Big Island of Hawaii. We passed an Ikea as we headed into the city, looking so familiar it seemed out of place. The bus arrived at the station and dropped us off with a bunch of other bleary-eyed passengers. We stood in the cold wind in the parking lot and looked around. The first thing that struck us was that Reykjavik, although the country's largest city, didn't seem that big. The main bus terminal is not much bigger than a small train station in the US or Europe. The second thing that occurred to us was we needed to pee, and we weren't sure just how long it would take to get to Cozy Campers.

We entered the terminal and found a row of seats with other confused passengers milling around. There was a bathroom in the corner, blocked by an automated gate. We had been warned by the guide books about this, but it still took us by surprise: in many places in Iceland you have to pay to play, so to speak. Luckily, there was a card reader to accept our (roughly) $1 each. We had stopped at an ATM for Icelandic Krona (ISK) before leaving the airport, but didn't have any change to feed the machine yet.

Feeling lighter and a bit more relaxed, we stepped out the door to the area devoted to shuttle buses and taxis. Here, we had our first lesson in the complexities of the ancient Icelandic dialect. We asked a shuttle bus driver if he could direct us to the Hreyfill taxis.

"Hray-Fill?" he looked at us like we were speaking some sort of inscrutable language. "I have never heard of this company."

I showed him the printout from Cozy Campers, where it clearly stated "Hreyfill".

"Oh!" Frayvitchl! Why didn't you say so? There's one right over there."

A shiny black Subaru was idling at the curb. In the front window, a Frayvitchl sign was glowing on the dash, only it was spelled "Hreyfill". The older gentleman got out and helped us load our luggage in the back.

"Where do you wish to go?"

"Cozy Campers please." We weren't even going to attempt the street name, so we handed him the printout with the address. "They said if we used your company they would pay for the ride."

"I hope they do." he mumbled under his breath. Mark and I exchanged looks, then shrugged. They were going to have to work it out, we were too tired to care.

(In the next post, we pick up the camper and are introduced to the fine art of food shopping in Iceland)

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Oh Deer.

We left Blair, Nebraska en route to Phoenix, Arizona (why? a story for another post) before dawn. By the looks of it, we had missed a major hailstorm just minutes before passing through Omaha. Cars were spun around, lanes were closed and emergency vehicles were lined up with lights flashing, illuminating the piles of bright white hail on the sides of the road. Glad we didn't get mixed up in that! Once clear of the big city, we were flying down Interstate 80 at 75mph, the most comfortable speed for our truck with the camper loaded.

Around 7am we always start looking for the next available coffee shop on the road. This 4100 mile road trip sometimes required extensive research to find a caffeine stop, the sparsely populated areas we were traveling through were a particular challenge. I was scrolling through the Google Maps "Coffee" search feature trying to estimate just how far we'd have to drive for a cup of energy when


"What the hell was that?"

I looked up at Mark, his eyes wide and hands shaking a bit on the wheel. "Deer."

It was only then I realized the lower half of the driver's side windshield had a deer head-sized indentation, and Mark's lap and most of the front seat was covered with fine shards of glass. He slowly eased the truck over into the breakdown lane and moved as far as possible off the road. Unfortunately, because of the torrential rain Nebraska had suffered all year, the ground on the side of the highway was a gooey, tire sucking mess. We were off the road, but not far enough off to be comfortable opening the driver's side door so close to the traffic lane.

I hopped out and dug around in the glove box for napkins to help brush the glass off Mark's lap and the seat. We were so pumped with adrenaline we didn't realize every brush against the shards was making tiny cuts in our fingers and bare legs. After getting most of it onto the floor mats, I peeked around the side of the truck and signaled when it was safe for him to get out.

Holy shit.

It happened so fast it was hard to tell exactly what happened, but judging from the body damage we pieced it together. The deer was running from the median strip across the lanes, hitting the front quarter panel with it's chest, it's head whipping around and smashing the window. From there its body must have flipped and slammed and slid down the side of the truck, shearing off the driver's side mirror and leaving it hanging by its now useless electrical connections. The body (because I'm pretty sure it was an instant death) must have flipped around again because there was a huge dent in the back quarter panel as well, just beneath the camper. There was deer hair and feces smeared over the back side panel, brush guards of the bumper, and under the camper rail, the icing on the cake if you will.
Interstate 80, where cars go 80, and deer play chicken.

The only thing Mark remembers seeing is the deer's eyes in the windshield before it hit. I think it still haunts him today.

After calming down a little, and brushing more glass off the seat, we got back in and limped our way to the next exit, listening for any weird engine sounds, unsure if anything but the body damage we had seen was affected. Milford was the closest town, so we headed there on the advice of the nice ladies at the gas station at the exit.

Milford is exactly seven blocks long. It looked like it served the farmers in the area, having a small grocery, a small coffee shop, a small auto repair shop, a one pump gas station, and various empty store fronts. We stopped in for coffee, mostly to gather our wits a bit since we had no need for caffiene at this point. The owner shook her head as she poured our drinks, "My husband hit a deer last week. So scary!"

Head smack

Where once there was an electronic adjustable mirror, only shredded wire remains.

Seriously reconfigured quarter panel
The auto shop there had just opened for business for the day, and after expressing their sympathy told us their windshield guy only came in once a week. They said our best bet was to drive back to Lincoln and find an auto glass place there.

The deer left more than dents.

Not wanting to get back on the interstate with a damaged windshield and no side mirror, we took the frontage road the 20 miles back to the city of Lincoln. As Mark carefully peered around the smashed part of the windshield, I googled "auto glass replacement" and made my way down the list of shops, calling for appointments. The first place said they could get us in the next day. Nope! Not gonna stay another night in Nebraska, as nice as our visit had been. The next place said they could get us in around noon. Better than tomorrow! We made the appointment just as we crossed the Lincoln city limits.

Having nowhere else to go, and very nervous driving around in a damaged truck, we drove straight to Capital Auto Glass and parked in front. We went inside and asked if we could hang out until our appointment time. The guy offered us coffee, and also offered to call around for a new side mirror. Another customer in the waiting room overheard our story and offered to drive us somewhere and buy us breakfast. As we were talking to him, a delivery truck pulled up with our windshield and the shop manager told the warehouse guy to pull our truck in. They moved our appointment to the front of the line and by the time our windshield was in, the mirror had arrived and they installed that too. All in all, we drove away with a sparkling new windshield and a gently used mirror exactly one hour and thirty minutes after driving into town.

The good guys in this story. If you ever find yourself in Lincoln, NE with busted glass, call them.

Deer hit: 7:30am
Arrival at glass repair shop: 9:00am
Back on the road: 10:30am

Incredibly, we made it to our scheduled campsite in Colorado that day before sunset.

Over the last 18 years we estimate we have driven an average of 6,500 miles annually in the interstates, rural highways, county lanes and backroads of every western state and Canadian province. While we have hit a few small animals and run over a couple of unfortunate reptiles, we have never even come close to hitting a deer.

Moral of this story: If you must hit a deer, do it in Nebraska. The state might not have towering mountains, deep canyons or dramatic coastlines, but damn they have the nicest, most helpful people on earth.

We are deeply indebted to you Nebraska. We'd love to visit again, but honestly, we aren't sure our old truck can take any more hits from your hulking corn-fed wildlife.

On our way back on 80, we passed our old friend.
R.I.P.  Deer